The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and the Danes, 871-1035 | The Early Middle Ages in Western Europe

In England, savage Danish attacks on the northern and eastern shores soon led to settlement. The chief barrier to the Danes was the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex under Alfred the Great (r. 871-899). Although Alfred defeated the Danes, he had to concede the whole northeast of England to them, a region thereafter called the Danelaw. By the mid-tenth century, Alfred’s successors had reunited the Danelaw to Wessex, whose royal family ruled over all England.

Soon after the turn of the eleventh century, new waves of Danes scored important successes under the command of Canute, or Knut (b. 994), the king of Denmark. In 1016 Canute was chosen king of England by the Anglo-Saxon witenagemot, a “council of wise men.” Able ruler of a kind of northern empire (he was also king of Norway), Canute allied himself with the Roman church and brought Scandinavia into the Christian community. His early death (1035) without competent heirs led to the breakup of his holdings, and England reverted to a king of the house of Alfred, Edward the Confessor, who reigned from 1042 until 1066.

Like the Carolingian monarch, the Anglo-Saxon king was crowned and anointed with holy oil and ruled as God’s deputy on earth, with responsibility for both church and state. His revenue came in part from an ancient practice, the ftorm—originally a tax of food levied for the support of the monarch and his household as they moved about England, though by the time of Edward the Confessor it was often paid in money. There was also the Danegeld, a war tax on land first levied in 991 to bribe the Danes, which continued to be collected long after its original purpose was unnecessary. The king also had income from his own estates and from fines levied in court cases. His subjects were required to work on the building and repair of bridges and defense works and had to render military service in the _fird, the ancient Germanic army.

The Anglo-Saxon king was the guarantor of law, and serious crimes were considered to be offenses against him as well as against the victims; he was also a lawgiver. His council of wise men, made up of important landholders, churchmen, and officials, advised him on major questions of policy and sometimes acted as a court to try important cases. The council also played a major role in the election and deposition of kings. In the king’s personal household staff, which moved with him and did his business from day to day, lay one of the origins of future specialized governmental departments in England and the many lands ultimately influenced by it.

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